Study Finds Public Defenders Best in Homicide Cases

Study finds that Philadelphia murder suspects unable to afford representation are better off with public defenders than court-appointed attorneys

If you're accused of murder in Philadelphia and can't afford an attorney you better hope you are one of the lucky few to get a public defender rather than a court-appointed attorney.

Defendants who can’t afford an attorney in Philadelphia are convicted of murder nearly 20 percent of the time less when randomly represented by the city’s public defenders, finds a recent U.S. Department of Justice study.

“I’m not very surprised by it,” said Philadelphia criminal defense attorney James Funt of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt & Flores.

“Court appointed lawyers, at no fault of their own, don’t have the resources,” Funt said.

The public defenders' office normally has multiple people working on cases while private court-appointed attorneys can't afford a legal team.

Former Philadelphia public defender and current Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation Marc Bookman says that there are moral and financial obligations to ensuring that the current system is fixed.

“We are shortchanging indigent defendants... not only are they getting a raw deal through horrible representation but we are too.”

The study finds that there are long-term systematic reasons for the different treatment of cases.

"The low pay reduces the pool of attorneys willing to take the appointments and makes doing preparation uneconomical."

Currently, the type of representation is random. At one in five preliminary arraignments for  defendants unable to pay for a lawyer, a public defender is assigned -- the other 80 percent of the time a court-appointed private lawyer is later brought in.

The 59-page RAND (a non-profit global policy think tank) study recently featured on the national Innocence Project’s blog shows that the disparity between public defense and court-appointed defense is stark. Looking at more than 3,400 cases, the authors found that clients represented by the Defender Association of Philadelphia were 19 percent more likely to be acquitted of murder, 62 percent less likely to receive a life sentence and overall received 24 percent less prison time when compared to clients represented by private lawyers assigned by the court.

Funt says that the nonpartisan independent study that used hard data just shines a light on an ongoing conversation that lawyers have been having among themselves.

Bookman and Funt both say that Philadelphia continues to be “penny wise but pound foolish.”

The U.S Department of Justice’s National Criminal Justice Reference Service-commissioned study points out that if clients represented by court-appointed counsel got similar results to those under the wing of the public defenders that the state would save more than $200 million as clients served about 6,400 fewer years behind bars.

The pay for a court-appointed attorney in murder cases is $1,333 if the case is resolved and $2,000 if it goes to trial -- after that they get $200 to $400 a day once the case is heard in court. The total is less in many cases than a lawyer would receive in a first-offense DUI case, according to Funt.

Yet, a lawyer in a murder case must put in hundreds of hours to properly represent their clients.

“We’ve got to come up with a fair hourly rate,” Bookman said.

Study co-author James Anderson, a former lawyer in Philadelphia himself, told that more funding on the state and city level would certainly make a difference.

In the abstract, the study says: “... the vast difference in outcomes for defendants assigned different counsel types raises important questions about the adequacy and fairness of the criminal justice system...”

Bookman, whose group serves as an advocate in capital cases, says that there is currently a case pending the state Supreme Court in which a group of defendants found guilty of murder and facing the death penalty are challenging the resources allotted to their court-appointed attorney.

Everyone NBC10 spoke to today with knowledge of this study hopes that the compensation for those lawyers representing the less fortunate in serious cases should be given better incentives.

If you paid lawyers better what you’re going to find are better outcomes, Funt said.

Anderson also suggests possibly adding another public defenders' office like other cities such as Los Angeles have done.

Defender Association of Philadelphia didn't return a request by for comment.

Contact Us